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Arizona Alerts DOJ After Complaints About Right-Wing Ballot ‘Watchers’

As election deniers and conspiracy theorists appeared to set their sights on Arizona (among other states), both state and federal officials have been alerted regarding possible voter intimidation in Phoenix in October 2022.

According to KNXV-TV reporter Nicole Grigg, the office of Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has referred at least four intimidation complaints to the federal Department of Justice, including one related to a group Grigg had encountered.

“Camo clad people taking pictures of me, my license plate as I dropped our mail in ballots in the box,” one complaint read. “When I approached them asking names, group they’re with, they wouldn’t give anything.”

Grigg had posted footage of her encounter with the two people described in this complaint; they claimed at the time to be affiliated with the conspiracy-driven group “Clean Elections USA” and had cameras aimed toward drop boxes at the Maricopa County election headquarters. The group’s website makes it clear that weaponized disinformation has informed its members’ reasoning:

According to research conducted by True the Vote, “Mules” were paid to go from drop box to drop box, often driving from one county to the next, to stuff what we can only assume were fraudulent mail-in ballots. 2000 Mules clearly illustrated that there was a coordinated effort to stuff ballot box in 2020. Our immediate and urgent mission is to prevent this from happening in 2022.

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When asked what they were doing there, the two people filming the county ballot boxes said they were “getting Vitamin D.”

KNXV had previously reported that another group of unidentified people had reportedly approached and followed a person dropping off their ballot at an early deposit box in Mesa. Griggs further reported that the Maricopa County Sheriffs’ Office was investigating individuals she described as armed who were “watching a voter drop box” in the same city:

She also posted photographs of messages sent to her laced with misogynistic abuse because of her work:

A spokesperson for Hobbs’ office told the station that the incident had been referred to state Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office and the DOJ for investigation. We contacted both offices seeking comment but have yet to hear back.

Footage posted by attorney Ron Filipkowski shows the group’s founder, Melody Jennings, telling right-wing operative Steve Bannon that they were “geo-tracking” people they believed to be election “mules,” and boasting that they would have people marching around election boxes in Michigan.

According to Filipkowski, Jennings also claimed to have “huge teams of volunteers” in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“Our people are showing up and gathering around boxes and shutting this stuff down,” Jennings says in the video.

NBC News also reported that Jennings had started promoting drop box surveillance even before the activity in Arizona was spotted:

On Oct. 17, Jennings posted a picture of a man whose vehicle did not have a license plate dropping off a single ballot, courtesy of her “drop box watching team.”

A day later, she posted a picture of a man she found suspicious because he “drove in backwards to avoid plate detection” and “got out showing his back.”

“Someone get tags,” she wrote. “No talking to them.”

On Tuesday, Jennings posted pictures of an opened drop box in Centre County, Pennsylvania, writing that “concerned citizens went with the sheriff to open these sealed boxes” and discovered “10 ballots already in the box.”

But after actual voter advocacy groups filed a lawsuit seeking to stop these activities in Arizona, she claimed in an October 2022 post that “anyone who does not follow the law at a drop box site is instantly disassociated with Clean Elections USA.”

Bannon, who was sentenced on October 21 2022 to four months in prison for defying a subpoena from the House subcommittee investigating the January 2021 right-wing coup attempt at the United States Capitol, has claimed that his followers had organized “multiples of 11,000” people to work as poll workers, election judges, and other positions within local infrastructure.

Hobbs, a Democrat, is one of two candidates on the ballot in the state’s gubernatorial race; her opponent, Kari Lake, has refused to accept U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election and would not confirm that she would accept a losing result against Hobbs.

NBC News also reported that Lake had planted the idea of this type of surveillance months earlier:

On May 31, about one month before the primary she would eventually win, Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told viewers on a right-wing broadcast outlet ahead of a state Senate hearing that “we will sleep by those drop boxes.” She added, “I’m rolling out my sleeping bag.”

Around a month later, retired U.S. Army captain and election conspiracist Seth Keshel promoted what he called “patriot tailgate parties” on the right-wing platform Truth Social. The push was further recycled around similar platforms and blogs over the summer of 2022. Keshel himself has claimed that he has not taken part in a “tailgate party.”

Another right-wing election denier, Mark Finchem, is running to succeed Hobbs as secretary of state against Democrat Adrian Fontes. on October 20 2022, Finchem did not address Grigg’s reporting directly, but instead invoked antisemitic tropes in claiming on Twitter (falsely) that reporters were the ones doing the “intimidating”:

George Soros, Bloomberg, and the World Economic Forum are all elements of an all-encompassing conspiracy theory known as “The Great Reset,” in which COVID-19 is used as a pretext for turning the planet into a single totalitarian regime:

One can see long-standing and familiar right-wing conspiracy tropes at play in the Great Reset conspiracy, including the notion that a group of elites are working to undermine national sovereignty and individual freedoms, references to a “New World Order,” and the idea that these malicious actors will seek to exploit a catastrophic incident — like a global pandemic — to advance their agenda. A common undercurrent among proponents is a mistrust of vaccines, which they believe will be forced upon people to fulfill the nefarious objectives of Bill Gates or the pharmaceutical industry.

There are strains of the conspiracy that also delve into darker territory. Some have alleged that the WEF and global elites are engaged in a transhuman project, in which humans will be fused with machines and forced to be subservient to elites.

[…]

As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, one can find antisemitic sentiments in the Great Reset, with some believers going so far as to accuse Jews of orchestrating the plot or invoking George Soros and the Rothschild family.

Update 10/23/2022, 9:26 p.m. PST: Updated with more accounts of voter intimidation “watching” and abuse of reporter Nicole Grigg. – ag
Update 10/28/2022, 9:26 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect news about the origins of the drop box surveillance campaigns. – ag